Striking a balance between sustainability and the return to physical events

the environmental impact of in-person events have led to questions of whether the world should resume large-scale events
  • Guidelines available from a number of organisations to guide the global MICE industry forward in sustainable event management
  • Businesses can offer hybrid meeting options as technology is available, even as in-person meetings return with a vengeance
  • More sustainably-certified venus and suppliers are needed
The environmental impact of in-person events has led to questions whether the world should resume large-scale events

Demand for business events has returned, limited only by ongoing volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (abbreviated as VUCA) conditions like living with Covid-19, the continuing conflict in Ukraine, rising inflation and unstable geopolitics.

Fortunately, meeting planners and industry players have not lost sight of sustainability, and guidelines to educate, standardise, innovate and measure green practices continue to be developed since the conversation started.

Where it all began
In 2012, UFI The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry launched ISO 20121, a sustainability event management system to help event organisers improve the sustainability of their activities.

Certified industry members in the region, according to UFI, include The Athenee Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Bangkok; Marina Bay Sands (Singapore); Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre (Thailand); Kingsmen CMTI (Thailand); Taiwan External Trade Development Council; Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre; exhibition freight forwarder R.E. Rogers (India); and integrated logistics services company PS Bedi (India).

ICCA, in identifying significant trends and strategies, said sustainability had become “more of a high priority for the industry as a whole” with the focus on the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, held in November 2021, and more people being concerned about climate change and the environment.

The 2020 Kaohsiung Protocol is ICCA’s strategic recovery framework to guide the global meetings and events industry forward. Additional guidelines were included in the new version of the Global Association Meetings Protocol last year following a survey on what had changed.

Sustainability, equity and legacy were some of the pillars identified in the survey, ICCA noted.

Daniel Chua, who heads experiential communications agency Aonia, started the business 20 years ago incorporating sustainability practices in areas such as destination selection, sourcing locally and route planning.

Chua noted that “cost”, “availability of alternatives” and “sustainable exhibitions that are not boring” were ongoing challenges, adding it was tricky balancing what clients want – which were “green, wow and affordable”.

Procurement and collaboration had to be carefully managed, Chua continued. “It is easier to convince clients because they are asking for sustainability, but the challenge is vendors having to hold on to ageing inventory and keeping up.”

For business events entities with or without ISO certification, Chua said sustainability guidelines had to be “easy to apply”.

To assist organisations with limited resources, the Singapore Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers (SACEOS), launched the MICE Sustainability Certification programme, based on the Singapore Tourism Board’s (STB) sustainability guidelines, in 2016.

According to Chua, STB held its first meeting with an industry committee on the Singapore Green Plan 2030 recently.

“Event technology innovation and social change are needed at all levels, and meeting planners must be able to provide ‘sustainable experiential expertise’ in order to boost the bottomline,” he opined.

Event sustainability in the long-term
There is no doubt sustainability is a prerequisite for long-term growth in accordance with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all UN member states in 2015 which contains 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

For leading global exhibition group, Informa Markets (IM), investing in sustainability was a long-term bottomline goal, Benson Tang, executive director, corporate travel, told TTGmice.

The sustainability journey to attract investors and generate shareholder value started in 2000, and Tang shared that IM was ranked number one on the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices for 2022 in the sector.

“Sustainability is costly to implement, monitor and audit and profitability may take a hit, but IM is willing to pay between two and four per cent more to support its sustainability goal,” he said.

Hong Kong-based Tang pointed out that Cathay Pacific, despite being one of the worst-hit airlines because of the pandemic, was in the process of changing to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), and had invested in an SAF company in the US.

Personally, Chua is cutting back on trips and urged more to meet face-to-face for the “right purpose” because innovative technology, created during Covid-19, is available.

Businesses should not compel staff to travel and can offer hybrid options instead, he added, but agreed it was a “tough call now” for businesses trying to recover.

Finding a satisfactory middle ground
GEVME, which provided clients with virtual and touchless events during the pandemic, said its “omnichannel event platform” offered live, virtual and hybrid events with sustainable online solutions for marketing, registration, badge-less entry and QR code business card exchange.

Its founder and CEO Veemal Gungadin said “economic drivers” and “policy change” had to be in place for industry players to embrace sustainability, use it as a competitive edge to make a profit and meet shareholders’ goals.

Gungadin was seeing progress with tender requirement calling for certified sustainability providers, and sustainable event technology solution was gaining traction and fast adoption in Australia and the US.

For the region, sustainability solution adoption ranged between “one (pessimistic) and six (a dream)” on a scale of one to 10, he said.

While an international conference and exhibition show organiser was willing to make its events more sustainable, he said more certified venues and suppliers needed to come onboard.

But with many in the industry trying to get back on track, grappling with staff shortages and ongoing disruptions, business was far from “normal” and all companies were being affected, the show organiser observed.

“To be able to offer a unique proposition and bring value to a show, costs must be reasonable. We are looking at paying around five to 10 per cent more to put sustainable practices in place.

“Not everyone is out of the woods yet. But it is not doom and gloom. Practical solutions must be cost-effective to help businesses return to profit.

“And government funding, if given, needs to be easy to access,” the show organiser stressed.

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